by Diane Wyzga.
They said I was mentally disturbed. They said I posed a threat. They asked the security guards to call the police and have me removed from the premises.
Once, when the Spanish had taken over an Aztec city they refused to let in anyone who was dressed in traditional Aztec clothes. A festival was underway within the city walls.
The occasion was a meeting of the Orange County, California, branch of the National Charity League. One after another, a parade of late model Lexus, Mercedes, BMW’s, Jaguars and Range Rovers pulled up to the curb and disgorged the well-dressed, well-heeled, and well-provisioned. They were 250 women and daughters (ages 12–18), who came to share an elaborate potluck buffet dinner. After dinner they were anticipating listening to a storyteller deliver a keynote on diversity, insiders and outsiders, and classism: the ways in which we deal with one another based on socio-economic grounds.
A young man approached the Spanish guards at the gate of the city. “Go away!” they said. “You cannot come here with those clothes.”
The ratty plaid wool jacket, baggy navy blue sweat pants, fingerless gloves, and shabby slippers over red wool socks hid the silk pantsuit I was wearing. The hooded sweatshirt pulled close around my face hid an otherwise non-threatening, middle-aged white woman. The red Folgers coffee can at my feet begged for change.
For forty-five minutes, I sat on the concrete pavement outside the event hall rocking and humming, cradling a stuffed raccoon, watching and waiting in the growing dark. No one stopped. If I looked up and caught a young girl’s eye, she might smile in that hesitant way of teens that want to do something but don’t know quite what.
“But these are all I have.” “Then go home and get some others.” He returned to his village, where he took off all his clothes. He returned to the city, naked.
When the buffet potluck dinner was over, the women and girls assembled in a large meeting room expecting the speaker. I made my way toward that room, stood outside while the introduction was delivered, then shuffled into a hall so still you would swear you were in church. When I reached the front of the room, I was surprised that I had to concentrate on collecting myself as I looked out into that sea of faces.
I began to take off the outer clothes one piece at a time. And as I did, I told them the story of the African Obuntu Botha culture and their way of greeting others. Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it as: “The essence of being human. You know when it is there, and when it is absent. It speaks about humanness, gentleness, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable. It embraces compassion and toughness. It recognizes that my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
“Get out of here,” said the guards as they looked away. “You cannot come in here like that.”
“In short,” I said, “a person is a person by virtue of other people. So, let’s greet each other.” When we spoke the greeting, “I am here!” and the response, “I see you!” to each other, we became Obuntu Botha. I believe that it was this series of actions that enabled me to carry off this approach without the listeners feeling ashamed, tricked or exploited.
Then I began to tell stories beginning with “Owl” (from The Magic Orange Tree by Diane Wolkstein) and adding others in keeping with the theme of exploring diversity. Next we examined the concepts of insider and outsider with stand up/sit down exercises; e.g., who here is left-handed, right-handed, just changed schools, comes from California, comes from “away,” feels that they are too thin, fat, short, tall, straight-haired, curlyhaired, etc.
Besides being a great deal of fun since the audience was mixed 8th-12 th graders and their mothers, it was an eye-opener to see who responded to which statement of expression. Finally, I invited them to share stories with each other in paired exercises crafted around the notion of exploring culture, identity and perceptions. A busy hum punctuated by laughter filled the room.
So the young man went back to his village. In an ancient ritual, he took a knife and cut off all his skin. His spirit returned to the occupied city– and no one could keep him out.
Here is how we ended our night: we stood and began to chant “We!” “We are the ones!” “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And now no one can keep us out.
Originally printed in the Winter 2004 issue of HSA Newsletter.
Diane Wyzga lives along the Pacific Ocean in San Clemente, CA. As a storyteller in juvenile hall, domestic abuse shelters, and corporations, she has witnessed the increasing need for storytelling that offers transforming and healing. She brings expertise from working as both a nurse and a lawyer when presenting workshops and concerts on reconciliation through storytelling; .